Fighting aging and fighting ageism: two sides of the same coin?

Here I’m republishing an edited version of my earlier post from this year on my earlier blog. This post expresses an important political position/consequence of the Open Lifespan philosophy.

A quick answer to the post title question

Sure, but only if we know what types of aging we are talking about. My original, more boring but less sensational post title elaborates on this: Counteracting biological aging and neutralising chronological ageism should go hand in hand.  (For the record, am not a big fan of using military/aggressive terms such as fighting). We desperately need to use the proper terms and choose the right type of aging we talk about depending on the context we talk about it.

Personal Intro

I’m into Open Lifespan/Healthspan since I was 14 and am several decades older now, in early middle age. Since my teenage commitment got me into aging research and science, I became sensitive and appreciative towards the issues that arise with aging so I was sensitised towards the issues of older people early on. I’ve always looked at them as forming the forefront, the avant-garde of experiencing and understanding accelerated biological aging and trying to counteract the biological, physiological decline and metabolic damage that accompanies it. So that meant respect, by default.

And I’ve always communicated with them without problems, openly, not being locked into my own generation, as many do. I was just curious and also loved my maternal grandma and paternal grandpa, the ones I had a chance to get to know at all.

As a result of my early commitment to the cause of Open Healthspan/Lifespan to me these 2 things are inseparable: efforts to counteract biological aging and fighting chronological ageism. To me these are the 2 sides of the same coin.

Connecting the topics of aging and ageism

But for many this is probably not the case. For one, this is just not an issue at all people in general think deeply about. My assumption is that for the bulk of society, these 2 things are not serious enough issues they identify with to express opinions about it. And yet, all the people reaching adulthood and more are taking hits both from biological aging and from chronological ageism during their lifetime.
How about a potential, negative argument made saying that people fighting aging are people promoting ageism at the same time? They might say: if you fight aging you are also fighting (whatever fighting means here) the main carriers of aging, older people. The brief answer: this potential argument can only emerge as a result of sloppy language use, failing to specify which type of aging is used in the 2 expressions forming the statement. Clarification comes quickly once you realise that people fighting aging are actually fighting biological aging and the people promoting ageism are promoting chronological ageism. So I’m here to show in advance that this is a crappy argument. One needs to only show that the concepts of aging used in the argument are used without defining their scopes and without this only bad arguments can be constructed. And to be honest I have not seen anybody yet making this argument anywhere and this is good news.
Still I think the reason for not having this argument around is due to the underlying topics (healthy lifespan extension and ageism) are not being connected and are not frequently discussed in public. This situation is changing though and this is for the better, but also now is the time to clarify some issues to be prepared. I think the discourse on the 2 topics will significantly overlap at some point and am hoping to provide some initial food for thought to achieve this merge.
But more than this I’m here to make a stronger argument: really if you work on counteracting biological aging, you are working on fighting (one form of) chronological ageism, already. And am also hoping that if you think yourself as one who fights chronological ageism you will recognise that you should be able to understand what biological aging is and by understanding it also to support scientific/medical /biotechnological efforts to delay/counteract the process and open up healthy lifespan. Cause that might be the most effective way to support the life of older people in the long term.

The brief and abrupted tale of 3 types of aging

Let me tell you the tale of 3 types of aging here quickly: Chronological, biological and psychological.
First there was Chronos, who produced Aether and Chaos…. Ok, my tale ends here as I suck in Greek mythology and telling stories so let’s get to the point.
Curiously, chronological (Chronos) is by definition the ‘neutral aging concept’ as it only registers time’s passing. ‘Biological aging’ (Chaos) is the ‘negative aging’ concept, the ’troublemaker’ as it refers to all the damage and functional decline and increased mortality that comes with normal biological processes going south with the passage of time. A good example is one of the hallmarks of biological aging called immunosenescence/inflammaging which refers to the innate immune system starting to misbehave with time and low level inflammation rising slowly through the decades leading to actual pathologies at the end, but not throughout the long accumulation period. And ‘psychological aging’ (Aether) is sort of where we have good news –  becoming wiser, making it the ‘positive aging’ as accumulating psychological research shows that there’s a lot of psychological reservoir with age and late adulthood often brings emotional stability, life satisfaction and positive affect. Increased risk for age-associated neurodegenerative diseases is a component of biological aging, not psychological.

2 types of ageism: intergenerational and one-way chronological

Before progressing with our argument, let’s take a look at what elements are ageism defined with by using 2 quotes, a general definition and a unique feature:

1. WHO’s definition from a perspective paper published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2018;96:299-300.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines ageism as the stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination towards people on the basis of age.
2. A unique & confusing psychological feature of ageism described in a New Yorker piece by Tad Friend:
Like the racist and the sexist, the ageist rejects an Other based on a perceived difference. But ageism is singular, because it’s directed at a group that at one point wasn’t the Other—and at a group that the ageist will one day, if all goes well, join. The ageist thus insults his own future self.

 

The claim I would like to make is that there are 2 forms of discriminatory ageism, both of them are chronological ageism but only one of them have a connection to biological (and physiological) age.

The first type of chronological ageism is intergenerational ageism. Discriminating against other people of different age or against our older (or middle-aged or younger) selves, the main machinery involved here is chronological age. If you think that the deleterious effects of biological aging is the main or only cause for chronological ageism against the older people then imagine a world where biological aging is not a problem anymore, yet kids are still born and develop and new generations are coming into age and taking their place and developing their own culture and references. It seems clear that in a world like that ageism and tensions between generations and fights over just allocation of resources would still be an issue. So chronological ageism is generational ageism too, based on different numbers of years registered for different groups of people since their birth. They were/are/will be newcomers at different times. And this kind of generational ageism goes both ways, affects the younger (later) and the older (earlier), explicitly because they are younger or older. But as this scenario above shows biological aging is not a necessary condition for triggering this kind of chronological ageism. Biological is not needed in order for chronological to happen. It will happen anyway.
What about it being a sufficient condition though, does the existence of biological aging and the visible signs of biological aging trigger chronological ageism by itself? Yes, this is classical ageism, rooted in favouritism, positive bias for the young and it has a long long history in human culture. (Recommend reading the History of Old Age by Georges Minois). This type of biologically triggered ageism goes one way though, as it affects only older people by definition. Let’s call it one-way chronological ageism.

The anti-ageist argument for Open Healthspan/Lifespan

By now you might have guessed the argument I’m going to construct: healthy lifespan openers working on coming up with interventions to counteract processes of biological aging are at the same time working on removing the physiological, cognitive differences between the biologically old and biologically young, hence they aim to attenuate biologically motivated ageism hitting older people. So they fight not just biological aging but biologically driven one-way chronological ageism too. Minimising the differences between biological ages and maximising the differences between chronological ages, they will make it hard for managers and decision-makers to build ageism into the very fabric of companies for instance and all sorts of institutions. No executive should be in a position to hire the younger candidate between 2 candidates with the same competency level just because the older candidate might have age-related chronic diseases. Currently only a rare minority of older people can maintain top healthy condition that makes them as competitive in certain situations as members of any other age group. One main motivation behind Open Lifespan and the elimination of ageing related functional decline is to maintain this competence and competitiveness for almost all older people, not just a select few.
At this point somebody might raise the question (again): isn’t constantly removing features of accelerated biological age in the hope of eliminating the basis of ageism constitutes ageism itself? This is a not the same crappy argument I phrased above in the Connecting the topics of aging and ageism section that was based on a simple conceptual confusion related to the different concepts of aging. This is a new argument that asks deeper: Aren’t healthy lifespan openers accepting the ageist logic and assumption: old age makes people less useful for society? First of all, let’s make a crucial difference between ‘logic’ and ‘assumption’; by ‘logic’ we mean here arguments created with logical rules based on different premises/assumptions with a particular mental machinery behind these processes. And here one must understand that using one of the same premises behind an argument does not equal using the same logic to reach different conclusions. Ageism does rely on an assumption coming from science establishing the biological, physiological decline, metabolic damage and increased mortality accompanying biological aging. But that’s about it. This is just common knowledge nobody really argues with seeing the amount of evidence supporting it. The real problem lies in the other assumptions made by ageists, for instance connecting individual biological aging to economical, sociological or whatever other measures in a particularly biased way. (Luckily our job here is not to reconstruct ageist logic and arguments in its diverse forms.) But in order to argue against the type of logic ageism represents one should start by considering the knowledge about what biological aging means and then dismiss the other ‘ageist’ premises in order to argue against ageism. Or as we do it here, use assumptions coming from different sources and viewpoints, that of healthy lifespan openers. So let’s not confuse logic with just one assumption behind that logic.
With this crucial difference in mind let me offer here 3 types of answers to this question posed by me:
Answer #1: By working on the technology for achieving much healthier and much longer human lives, healthy lifespan openers want more chronologically older people to be around, they want to change the distribution of chronological age radically, to turn a long tail to a long plateau. This is the fundamental step that needs to be taken to take away the teeth of all biologically motivated chronological ageist views and actions. (This is of course not to say that many other significant things can be done, must be done and will be done against ageism till then, see next section.) By aiming to remove biological/physiological/functional barriers/limits imposed on the human body by biological aging, they wish to enhance the benefit that comes with much longer chronological age and that is experience, some form of it can be called wisdom if you wish.
Answer #2: Here we go back to the fundamental difference between ageism and the other 2 big discriminations, sexism & racism, namely the universal feature that ageism involves discrimination against our future selves. Ageism is the mindset that turns a self-representation into a bothering and othering hetero-representation, when we see ourselves in the (usually distant) future and we don’t recognise our future selves continuous with our current and (much) younger selves and as a result we de-value our own future. This is the logic behind temporal discounting as well. We prefer rewarding our younger selves as our ’true, authentic, …’ selves as opposed to our future older selves, by thinking our younger selves are representing us in our best form, at the top of the game. I’m talking about fully developed adults here. A 7 year old might desperately want to become a 10 year old, and a 16 year old a 20 year old. A 21 year old might not be as desperate anymore to become a 22 year old. And thinking from this point of view healthy lifespan openers want to become their older selves just as much as they are comfortable being their current selves. This is the best scenario to make ageism impossible from the inside, this is the best scenario to even out how we might view ourselves consistently throughout time. Fortunately I got vaccinated against considering my younger self the ‘real one’ thanks to my early life stage life extension commitment.
Answer #3: Quick answer: The deepest way to go after ageism is not by fighting institutional ageism but by developing solutions to counteract the biological aging process to free up, carve out extra valuable time for older people, to make them as competitive as others. If average healthspan goes up by 2 decades those 2 decades of life will turn into a most precious resource for older people to generate values, to contribute to the well being of society as a whole. To motivate this answer further, let’s ask how many ways can one-way chronological ageism be attacked?

Hey, Anti-Ageists, wanna make a lasting difference in the long term? Become healthy lifespan openers

The main attacking point of anti-ageist advocates today is legal, political, social: they go after age discriminatory practices at the courts, call out ageist rhetorics in politics, ridicule blatant ageist advertisements and careless social media remarks. They have a lot to do and they have a simple but important job to do as the current circumstances are mainly a result of the ‘ruling narrative of old age’, described so eloquently by Joseph Coughlin in his book, the Longevity Economy. This current institutionalised, mainstream view/image/depiction of old age assumes that the old is a needy, greedy consumer past the crucial producer, worker, society-maintainer years. This view has been built up in the last 200 years and was on top in the second half of the last century. Consequently prevalence of ageism is high, and it’s easy to find targets, so the work is rewarding and looks fruitful.
I call this dominant form of anti-ageism external or top-level anti-ageism as it concerns external, top-level problems surrounding older people and blocking their reintegration into society.
Under most anti-isms there is (or there should be) a positively framed (even if relativised or comparative) message about say the equality of a particular group of people with another group of people or the freedom of a particular group of people with another group of people. Using negative messaging only, it’s hard to establish a super-convincing viewpoint.
External anti-ageists fight the ageist prejudices and biases around the chronologically aged and they make their lives hopefully better as a result, but only indirectly. By indirect I mean not touching/attacking the biggest problem facing older people in the first place: the burden biological/physiological aging puts on our constantly changing and vulnerable identity through time. As Sharon Butala’s recent Against Ageism put it:
The day old age strikes, our lives appear comfortable, even privileged, but our hearts are numb with permanently thwarted desire, our throats choked with longing for things we will never have again, and our future, we are sure, is too bleak to contemplate. We stare in terror into the abyss and ask ourselves: Who am I now?
I struggled in the face of all this, as my body changed and grew more fragile no matter what I did to stop it and as younger people started ignoring me or treating me as if I were a not-very-smart, obstinate child. And because of my less robust physicality, and my new single state, I was having to cut away things I used to do: bike riding, cross-country skiing, extensive hiking, adventurous travelling, and participating in many after-dark outings.
As I explained in the 3 answers in the previous section healthy lifespan openers fight this burden constantly in the hope of building a chronologically much more diverse society backed by their strong belief of attributing the same value to their various temporal identities, their different temporal slices while also understanding and appreciating the differences between those stages. And this is what I call internal or bottom-level or deep anti-ageism: the fundamental fight against biological aging will enable the fundamental well-being of older people.
What I’d like to suggest is that the switch from an external anti-ageist activist to a all-cause anti-ageist is a straightforward one and lies on the same path: it assumes that underneath the justified sensitivity towards alleviating the overall, accumulated burden on the shoulders of older people, there must be a united, fundamental, positive belief in the value of the lives of the same older people. An all-cause anti-ageist should practice both external and internal  anti-ageist principles.
Don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk too. Build the tools that enable advancing this cause.

Summary

  1. When it comes about discussing issues around aging, always try to use the term ‘aging’ with a qualifier, defining its type, restricting its scope. Make an effort to offer this help to others too. This way you will have an actual chance to talk sense.
  2. Deep healthy lifespan openers might not realise but they are working on the best option to eliminate one-way chronological ageism by developing interventions to counteract biological aging every which way. Longevity advocates: you are anti-ageist, don’t you think? Say again, can’t hear you.
  3. Current, vocal anti-ageist advocates mainly practice external/top-level anti-ageism, and if they want to go deep and become all-cause anti-ageists they must work towards Open Healthspan/Lifespan to address internal/bottom-level, deep anti-ageism too.
  4. To paraphrase Kant: Fighting one-way chronological ageism without fighting biological ageing is futile in the long term, and fighting biological aging without fighting one-way chronological ageism is blind, in the short term.

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